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Mill at a Loss

On John Stuart Mill
by Philip Kitcher
Columbia University Press, 2023; 152 pp.

John Stuart Mill wasn’t Murray Rothbard’s favorite philosopher, and Philip Kitcher’s short book would confirm this dislike. Rothbard viewed Mill as a fuzzy thinker, overly prone to compromise and averse to firm principles. These qualities are among those that lead Kitcher to praise Mill, but Rothbardians nevertheless have much to learn from Kitcher, who is a leading analytic philosopher, especially notable for his work on Immanuel Kant and the pragmatists.

His book, the title of which evokes Mill’s famous essay On Liberty, includes a number of interesting arguments, many of them mistaken. But Kitcher also presents in the book a brilliant point about aggregative versions of utilitarianism, so good that it almost induces me to give the book a positive review (but not quite).

Many people read Mill as combining utilitarianism, which decides moral issues by appeal to the “greatest happiness of the greatest number” with a libertarian defense of autonomy, especially free speech. Mill defended the former doctrine in his book Utilitarianism, modifying the strict Benthamite calculus of pleasure and pain with an appeal to the distinction between “higher” and “lower” pleasures, and personal autonomy in the aforementioned On Liberty. It’s often suggested that the two views cannot easily be made consistent. Wouldn’t strict adherence to utilitarianism allow many more restrictions on individual freedom than Mill accepts in On Liberty? If this conflict exists, which view should be given priority?

In Kitcher’s opinion, these questions aren’t the best ones to ask; or, at any rate, they aren’t the ones on which he wishes to concentrate. He views Mill as a progressive thinker aiming to enhance people’s abilities to develop their potential through a program of humanistic education and character development:

When you start to look hard, a celebration of human progress is all over Mill’s corpus. . . . The progressive Mill doesn’t ground his thinking in utilitarian ethics or in a celebration of human freedom. His most fundamental commitment is to a distinctive type of humanism. Our species, as he conceives it, is engaged in a transgenerational project, one in which human beings make their own distinctive contributions to a far larger enterprise. Not to creating the Kingdom of God on earth but to helping, in small and cumulative ways, successive generations advance beyond the “puerile and insignificant” lives that have, historically, been the lot of most people to forms of life that “human beings with highly developed faculties can care to have.”

How is this ambitious project to be achieved? Mill emphasizes an experimental process, whereby people’s autonomous choices about how to live, within a framework of noninterference with the projects of others, lead to progress. In Kitcher’s interpretation, there are no fixed formulas that determine what to do in cases of conflict: these must be decided by democratic deliberation.

Kitcher offers several examples of what he sees as Mill’s approach applied to contemporary issues, and from a Rothbardian standpoint, the results aren’t encouraging. He notes that after covid-19 vaccines became available, some people refused to take them, claiming it was an interference with their freedom to force them to do so:

They cannot be compelled by government mandate to cover their faces or bare their arms to the needle. Although their intractable opposition conflicts with the plans and projects of their neighbors, can they claim a right to “pursue their own good in their own way”?

Kitcher’s answer is that these people have no such right, because “their strident protests against ‘government overreach’ reveal gross insensitivity to the distribution of liberties” (emphasis in original). They make it more difficult for others to go about their normal activities without increased risk, and especially important among these activities, from the standpoint of Mill’s educational project, is keeping the schools open. These freedoms, Kitcher thinks, outweigh the freedom to refuse to take the vaccine. (Oddly, Kitcher never mentions that many people doubted the efficacy of the vaccines and thought them harmful; evidently, “vaccine skeptics” are beyond the pale.)

In like fashion, Kitcher rejects the freedom to own guns, which he calls “gun fetishism.” “There are, however, many things I want that flooding the world with powerful guns renders impossible. It matters to me, for example that. . . . Children are not terrorized and traumatized by seeing their peers killed and maimed in front of them.”

Kitcher is well aware of the obvious objection to his way of handling these disputes: he is “solving” conflicts by arbitrary appeal to his own preferences. He says:

The losses suffered by one party are claimed to be “outweighed by” or “trivial in comparison with” the gains of freedom enjoyed by another. Verdicts of this kind issue from a place outside the lives and experiences assessed, they are external, delivered from some privileged perspective, occupied by some godlike figure. . . . But who can aspire to sit in that judgment seat? Can I? Can Mill? Can anyone? No. (emphasis in original)

Kitcher’s response to this objection seems weak, but it is in keeping with his rejection of fixed rules and standards. He calls for discussions in which the parties in conflict each try to consider sympathetically the concerns of the others. He trusts that the results of such deliberations will accord with his own views or else be some reasonable compromise.

Kitcher has little use for the free market: as you would expect, the freedom of business enterprise is outweighed by conflicting “freedoms.” He raises a new point, though, when he claims that a completely unregulated market is impossible. Markets can function only if certain “background conditions” including a legal system and infrastructure are present. He considers an objection but claims this leads to a regress:

Aficionados of the free market may propose privatizing the construction of the necessary infrastructure, only to find themselves trapped in a regress. For if the work is left to individual enterprise, it will involve transactions in another market (in which suppliers compete for the favors of potential customers), and that market will require just the same background conditions.

This argument doesn’t succeed: Why would the regulations at each level have to be different? Why wouldn’t the legal system simply permit the right of free contract?

So far, I suspect that most readers will think Kitcher’s book has little to offer, but, as I mentioned at the start, it contains an excellent argument. Kitcher throughout the book is concerned to reject solutions to political problems that dictate an outcome based on fixed formulas. One such approach is an aggregative utilitarianism that simply adds up pleasures and pains.

Kitcher’s objection is that there is no fixed way to perform the addition. The person adding up the pleasures and pains must still exercise judgment. In Jeremy Bentham’s system, for example, you consider the pleasures and pains that each proposed action will bring about. You multiply the intensity of each pleasure by its duration, likewise for pain. You then add the products of all the pleasures and the products of all the pains. You subtract the smaller of these sums from the larger, giving you the net pleasure or pain of the action.

Kitcher’s objection is that no rationale has been given for multiplying intensity by duration. “But why multiply? There are many ways to combine two numbers” (emphasis in original). You can choose what weight to give duration relative to intensity, and thus this variety of utilitarianism doesn’t lead to a fixed formula.

Is this excellent technical objection enough to redeem the book? That can’t be decided by a fixed formula.

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